Melissa Herrmann with Deputy Premier Paul Toole at Ecoloop’s official opening.

With the fifth anniversary of the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy rapidly approaching, state governments across Australia have been stepping up their efforts to remove dangerous combustible cladding from buildings. But what’s happening with the waste?

Unfortunately, there’s still much work to be done in removing dangerous cladding from apartments. A recent NSW Auditor General’s report found just 40 per cent of the 1200 at risk buildings under local council jurisdiction have either been fixed or cleared so far.

With around 4.3 million square metres of problem banned aluminium composite panels (ACP) needing to be pulled down from apartments across Australia, what will happen to all the waste?

Initially, most of the problem panels were sent straight to landfill, because it was too difficult to separate the aluminium in the panels from the combustible polyethylene core. 

The ACP panels typically also contain ferrous metals (including screws or steel flashings) and other mixed residuals (such as sealant, backing rod, paint and tapes) that also need to be removed and managed.

That changed in January 2021, after cladding supplier Fairview developed a process called Ecoloop that separates out the materials in cladding, and opened a new $1.6 million recycling facility to divert 100 per cent of cladding waste from landfill.

Cladding removal programs accelerating

Since May of last year, the Ecoloop program has recycled around 200 tonnes of dodgy cladding, and business is booming, with a further 600 tonnes forecast to the end of the year.

Melissa Herrmann, industry engagement manager at Fairview, told The Fifth Estate a big source of that ACP waste will be from NSW’s “Project Remediate” program, which kicked off in August of last year with the aim of removing flammable cladding from affected buildings within three years.

”I’m really proud of the fact that we’re doing our bit to solve the environmental impact of rectification of building cladding. Personally, I’m just happy that I’m contributing to the solution rather than the problem.”

Melissa Herrmann, Fairview

“I know with NSW Project Remediate, they have factored an estimated 375,000 sq m of material recycling into their contractual submissions for remediation. So that provides an opportunity to recycle those products, and that is to be commended,” Ms Herrmann said.

Alongside NSW, the company is seeing significant amounts of cladding rectification waste from Victoria (through the Cladding Safety Victoria building rectification program), the ACT and Queensland.

Without disclosing specific numbers, Ms Herrmann confirmed that the increasing amount of cladding is leading to revenue growth, and that the company anticipates it will hire additional staff as recycling volumes increase. 

How the process works

Ecoloop is the fifth program to have received Product Stewardship Accreditation from the federal government, and the first for recycling ACP waste.

Around 98 per cent of the resources in the panels are recycled, with the remaining mixed residuals used to offset coal emissions through waste-to-energy.

“It goes through a primary shredding process and a secondary shredding process. And then there’s ways that we separate the aluminium skin from the combustible core. Those parts, which are aluminium, and polyethylene, get recycled into new products,” Ms Herrmann said.

“Any ferrous materials that are in there, and that’s usually any framing screws or rivets, get moved out to another area, and then any mix residuals, which are the paint, any caulking and adhesives, are also set aside. That’s what gets utilised as waste-to-energy.”

Challenges

Ms Herrmann said that it’s difficult to know what percentage of waste cladding is currently being recycled, because building rectification works aren’t usually advertised.

However, the big challenges for the program have been around knowing where to source ACP waste from, and building awareness in the industry that the panels can be recycled.

“There’s a few factors that stand in the way of more cladding being recycled, I would say awareness that a program exists, and that’s something that we’re constantly working on. Especially being in the industry, it’s something that we definitely offer all of our clients who use our products as a replacement for combustible cladding,” she said.

“We try to make the process as easy as possible. But there’s a bit of resistance when there’s an extra step required. And unfortunately, landfill is the default, and that’s really what we’re working towards changing.”

Stewardship by product producers

Speaking more broadly on what can be done to promote a circular economy, Ms Herrmann said the onus should really be on product producers, rather than consumers, to worry about what happens to their products at the end of their life. 

“Basically, product stewardship is about manufacturers, such as importers, material producers and retailers taking a greater responsibility for their products across the supply chain to eliminate or minimise the environmental impacts and health risks,” Ms Hermann said.

“Ideally, we should all strive to keep those resources in circulation rather than sending them to landfill. And that’s really the big thing we’re aiming for with a circular economy.

”I’m really proud of the fact that we’re doing our bit to solve the environmental impact of rectification of building cladding. Personally, I’m just happy that I’m contributing to the solution rather than the problem.”

UPDATED 11 MARCH to clarify details on cladding waste.

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